As the health care industry gets more and more high-tech, job opportunities for trained lab technicians are on the rise. Enrolling in medical lab technician programs online or on campus can give you the skills you need to identify, test and catalog important medical samples in one or more medical specialties.
On this page, we'll give you a brief lab technician job description and talk about the amount of schooling that's typically necessary to land an entry-level position in the field, among other career-relevant topics. Read on to find out more about how to become a medical lab technician, schools where you can learn the ropes and what you can expect from the average lab technician salary.
What do lab technicians do?
There are many different types of samples that a lab technician might work with, so the specific duties on their day-to-day schedules may vary. Despite that, the general responsibilities of the position are likely to be shared by most lab tech jobs:
- Operating microscopes and other sensitive and sophisticated laboratory equipment
- Analyzing medical samples and recording the results
- Recording data from lab tests into a patient's medical record
- Communicating with other health care personnel about the findings of laboratory work
Approximately half of the lab technicians employed in the U.S. in 2016 worked in state, local and private hospitals. Another 27 percent held positions in diagnostic laboratories and doctors' offices, while roughly 10 percent worked in colleges, universities and outpatient care centers.
What are lab technician specializations?
Medical lab technician schools typically offer a general lab tech training program that covers basic health care knowledge and introduces you to the tools of the trade. If you find a job in a large lab, there may be opportunities to specialize in one of the following sub-fields:
- Blood bank technology
- Clinical chemistry technology
- Immunology technology
- Microbiology technology
- Molecular biology technology
Not all health care facilities feature such lab technician specialties -- technicians operate as generalists in many hospitals and smaller labs -- but it's helpful to know what's out there if you're hoping to work with a specific type of sample.
How to Become a Lab Technician
Some type of formal education is usually required for aspiring lab technicians. Most positions are available to lab technician school graduates with an associate degree or certificate. Here's a quick list of steps that aspiring lab technicians can follow on their way to employment:
- Earn your high school diploma or equivalent
- Complete a lab technician program at vocational school or community college
- Consider certification by the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) or another recognized agency
Medical lab technician schools each set their own curriculum, so the exact list of courses you take in your college program may differ slightly, but here's a rundown of the sort of subjects you can expect to study in a lab technician program:
- Medical terminology
- Laboratory medicine
- Fluid analysis
- Clinical chemistry
- Clinical microbiology
- Clinical hematology
High school students hoping to become medical lab technicians can prepare themselves by taking classes in biology, chemistry and math. Any laboratory class where you learn safety measures can help as well.
Medical lab technician degree programs
Whether you choose to attend a medical vocational school, community college or other institution, you're likely to have several levels of training program available to you. Here's some detail about each of the types of program you're likely to see:
- Undergraduate certificates typically offer the lowest time to completion and the lowest overall cost of the various program levels. Some programs may consist of a single certificate course in medical laboratory technology, although employers are likely to prefer candidates who have completed a well-rounded training program.
- Associate degrees can usually be earned in around two years of full-time study and address the medical laboratory field in considerable depth. Programs at this level tend to strike a solid balance between a thorough education and an affordable one.
- Bachelor's degrees are also available for medical lab techs, but they tend to provide a great deal more training than is typically required for entry-level positions in the field. If you're already working in a medical lab and want to advance your career, a bachelor's degree can be a good way to go.
If you discover that you enjoy the academic side of medical laboratory science, advanced degrees at graduate and post-graduate level can also be found. Real-world application of your knowledge is an important part of this career, so it's wise to have several years of work experience before considering an advanced degree.
Hands-on training at lab technician schools
Medical lab technician programs both online and on campus usually require some laboratory work in subjects like biology and chemistry. Lab sections tend to consist of mainly hands-on work, such as conducting independent tests according to a specific set of guidelines.
If you've completed college-level lab courses in the past, you may be able to satisfy the hands-on training requirement by transferring your previous lab credits to your current school. Check with your advisor or a registrar to learn about the lab work expectations at your chosen program.
Online lab technician schools
Students who need some extra scheduling flexibility can look into medical lab technician programs at online schools. Certain online programs provide asynchronous course delivery, allowing you to keep your current job while you train for a lab technician career at home on your own time.
Because many of them require lab classes that can't yet be faithfully reproduced in the virtual environment, however, it's rare to find medical lab technician programs available fully online. Hybrid programs -- where you attend most of your classes online but visit a campus or learning center for the hands-on work -- are far more common.
Medical laboratory technician certification
There are a few different organizations in the U.S. that offer medical laboratory technician certification for working professionals. American Medical Technologists (AMT) and the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) are two such groups, each providing certification tracks for established lab techs, recent lab technician school graduates and military veterans.
Although certification isn't often required for entry-level lab technicians, employers looking to fill senior positions or other top jobs may prefer candidates who have completed an industry-recognized certification program.
Career advancement options for lab technicians
Developing a stable career and a reputation for reliable and effective work can earn you the chance to apply for lab technician jobs that include increased status, responsibility or compensation. It's possible to move up to a new tier in the industry, as well, if you put together the right combination of education and experience.
Earning a bachelor's degree in laboratory science can teach you lab management, advanced safety procedures and other next-level skills required to move up from technician to technologist. What's more, taking on some extra science education may qualify you for laboratory science positions outside of the health care industry.
Skills and Abilities for Lab Technicians
Having certain skills can help you more smoothly adapt to the type of work required in medical lab technician jobs. Here's a list of some of the most valuable skills and traits for aspiring lab techs, according to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET):
- Science is more than just a career field -- scientific thinking is a skill that includes the ability to use scientific rules and methods to obtain information and solve problems
- Control precision can help you confidently make small adjustments on measuring instruments and other lab equipment
- Near vision, or the ability to see details at close range, can help you ensure that you're reading the instruments right and recording accurate information
- Time management is especially valuable in large or busy labs, where it might be necessary to handle numerous sensitive tasks within a given time period
- Reading comprehension can come in handy when taking written instructions from the doctors and other personnel who order the tests
Lab Technician Salary and Career Outlook
How much you can expect to earn as a lab technician can depend on a wide range of factors. Salary figures can vary based on your level of experience, for example, or the state where you live, or the type of lab facility where you find a job.
National averages can give you a good ballpark figure, however. Here are some salary and job outlook numbers for lab technicians, calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians||321,220||$53,880||12.7%|
|Dental Laboratory Technicians||34,480||$43,180||14.5%|
|Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians||27,960||$34,490||11.9%|
|Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers||89,480||$28,690||19.4%|
Professional Resources for Lab Technicians
Most professionals in the U.S. benefit from organized groups looking out for their interests, and medical lab technicians are no exception. Here's a quick list of professional resources for lab technicians:
- The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) does more than just provide certification services for technicians and other lab workers. Its members can take advantage of continuing education credits and multiple industry journals, among other perks.
- The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) features a library of professional development resources and a career center that serves as part of the National Healthcare Network and allows members to browse open positions throughout the U.S.
- American Medical Technologists (AMT) restricts its membership to those who have earned one of its certifications, but members get access to an annual convention, regional chapter meetings, online continuing education and more.
- Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 15-18, 2018, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm;
- School pages, accessed January 15-18, 2018: Medical Laboratory Technician A.A.S., Edison State Community College, http://catalog.edisonohio.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=23&poid=4458&returnto=2076; Clinical Lab Assistant, Bellevue College, https://www.bellevuecollege.edu/ahe/certificate-options/cla/; Clinical Lab Assistant Certificate, Weber State University, https://www.weber.edu/mls/onlinecertificate.html; Medical Laboratory Technician Associate's Degree, Rasmussen College, https://rasmussen-college.dcatalog.com/v/2018 -- -2019-Catalog/?page=44; Online BS in Medical Laboratory Science, Louisiana State University of Alexandria, https://online.lsua.edu/programs/bachelor-of-science-in-medical-laboratory-science.aspx;
- Lab Technicians, Occupational Outlook Handbook, accessed January 15-18, 2018, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2012.00
- Professional association pages, accessed January 15-18, 201: Medical Laboratory Technician, American Medical Technologists, https://www.americanmedtech.org/Get-Certified/MLT-Eligibility#142383-route-1-education; Get Credentialed, ASCP Board of Certification, American Society for Clinical Pathology, https://www.ascp.org/content/board-of-certification/get-credentialed; Become a Member, American Society for Clinical Pathology, https://www.ascp.org/content/membership/become-a-member; Member Benefits, The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, https://www.ascls.org/membership/benefits; Member Benefits, American Medical Technologists, https://www.americanmedtech.org/Stay-Certified/Member-Benefits;